Rules On The Road to Victory

The USA Equestrian Drug Testing Program


In the early 1970s, there was uproar in the country's show arenas. Competitors wanted a level playing field--one competitor shouldn't have a "chemical" advantage over another. The uproar resulted in the first big move toward establishing drugs and medications rule enforcement in equestrian competition.


"Riders were tired of being beaten in the ring by horses that were drugged," explained John G. Lengel, DVM, administrator of the Drugs and Medications (D&M) Program for USA Equestrian (formerly American Horse Shows Association, or the AHSA until mid-2001). Lengel walked The Horse through USA Equestrian’s drug testing program, from the steps of collecting blood and urine samples to the penalties incurred for breaking the rules.


Establishing the Rules


The first D&M Rule was established in the late 1930s, and it left broad room for interpretation. The uprising in the 1970s brought significant change, and the current drug rule and testing program evolved from a vague one-liner in the AHSA rules to an advanced program with very specific regulations and a $2.2-million per year operating budget.


There is the possibility that a horse at any USA Equestrian-sanctioned competition will be required to undergo drug testing. All owners entering USA Equestrian-sanctioned shows pay drug fees. Under the USA Equestrian rules, owners must allow prompt access to the animal if it is selected for testing.


All endurance competitions have a "no foreign substance" policy identical to that of the Federation Equestre Internationale, the governing body for international equestrian sport. For all other disciplines, the rules classify drugs and medications into three categories:


1.    Forbidden Substances are those that affect the performance of the horse. Included are stimulants, depressants, tranquilizers, local anesthetics, and psychotropics (mood-altering substances). Procaine penicillin is also forbidden because it contains the local anesthetic procaine.


"Masking" substances that interfere with laboratory detection of illegal medications or drugs are forbidden. Dipyrone is one example. While it is no longer on the market, it was a popular drug for colic relief, so some stables still have it. Some people have used the diuretic Salix (furosemide, formerly Lasix) to mask other drugs, as it is will dilute urine and yield a weaker sample for testing.


This illicit use of Salix as a masking substance should not be confused with a testing veterinarian's administration of a small amount of the drug to expedite urination at testing time. "The first urine sample will not be dilute," explained Lengel. He added that some trainers have a conceptual problem with the use of Salix in expediting urine collection given the drug's restricted status. However, educated riders and trainers permit administration of Lasix by the testing veterinarian, recognizing that it will not affect the outcome of drug testing.


Forbidden drugs must have a legitimate therapeutic use, (e.g., dental surgery), and require a 24-hour withdrawal time, which means a medication report must be filed within an hour of administration. A valid medication report on file, which documents compliance with the rules, assures the rider that any slight traces of the medication detected by drug testing will not result in a penalty.


2.    Restricted Substances include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) and methacarbonal (a muscle relaxant). Five NSAIDS have been approved--Bute, Banamine, Ketofen, Arquel, and Naproxen. USA Equestrian has issued dose and time recommendations for restricted substances to help owners and trainers comply with the rules.


3.    Permitted Substances are identified only by process of elimination. They include most nutrients, vitamins, minerals, electrolytes, and anti-infection drugs.


What About Natural Products?


Some owners have been surprised that the "natural" product they administered to their show horses resulted in positive drug tests.

"These products are put on the market with two claims," explained Lengel. "One, that the product is effective in improving performance in some manner, e.g., as a calming agent for soothing fractious nerves; and two, that it is permitted by rules or will not result in the finding of a foreign substance (in a drug test)." That isn't always true.


You can look at any magazine and see the explosion of herbal and natural products in the equine market. For this reason, USA Equestrian has not attempted to compile a list of natural products that are classified as forbidden or could produce positive tests. Lengel explained that the only way to determine which products are forbidden or permitted is by looking up the ingredients of the product in pharmacology books or checking with USA Equestrian prior to administering the substance.


Steps Of The Drug Testing Process


Collecting and testing blood and urine samples is expensive. Also, a portion of the budgeted $2.2 million is allotted for legal expenses incurred for hearings. According to Lengel, about 8,000 individual samples go through the USA Equestrian testing laboratory per year. This facility is considered one of the most sophisticated equine drug testing laboratories in the world, and it is closely affiliated with the highly regarded Cornell University drug testing lab.


To ensure fairness at horse shows, testing veterinarians select horses at random by picking ribbon winners from every class before the class ends (i.e., one vet might decide to test the second- and fourth-place horses from each class).


"Most are met at the out gate after receiving their ribbon," said Lengel. "It helps establish the identity of the horse or pony and assures that nothing is administered (in the interim)." He explained that the riders and trainers have gotten used to the system, and most are very cooperative.


In dressage competitions, combined driving events, combined training events, and reining classes, ribbon results are not known until the end of the competition. Therefore horses often are selected at random as they finish their rounds of competition, regardless of results.

Samples can be collected at the horse's stable, or in a designated testing stall. Horse show management is required to provide a testing stall upon request at every USA Equestrian-sanctioned event.


The testing veterinarian is instructed to watch the activities in the show and warm-up arenas for horses which might appear to be drugged, i.e., clinically stimulated or depressed. Any horse entered in the competition and suspected of being given illegal drugs may be tested. The trainer is responsible for the condition of the horse and is subject to the D&M rules.


Two 20-cc tubes of blood are taken with a 20-gauge, 1 1/2-inch needle by the testing veterinarian (40 cc is the minimum amount needed so that all tests can be performed). The tubes are sealed, tagged with a unique sample number, and placed in an evidence bag.


Some forbidden drugs such as reserpine are only detectable in the blood. But most drugs are much more likely to concentrate in the urine, so ideally both blood and urine samples are taken.


"We succeed more than half the time in getting a urine sample," said Lengel. Urine samples are sealed, tagged, placed in evidence bags, and frozen. The samples are always either locked up or in the custody of the testing veterinarian or technician.


Samples Travel First Class


Coolers containing samples from shows are sent via Federal Express overnight and are always under lock and key. The USA Equestrian laboratory borders the Ithaca airport, so samples can be delivered to the lab quickly.


The samples are carefully inspected upon arrival for irregularities or anything that would question their integrity, like evidence of tampering or broken sample tubes.


State-Of-The-Art Laboratory


The USA Equestrian laboratory is closely associated to the lab of Cornell's George Maylin, DVM, PhD. Many advances in equine drug testing can be attributed to Maylin, who has been the director of the Equine Drug Testing Program at Cornell since 1971. He played a huge part in the birth of the then-AHSA laboratory.


"He designed it, oversaw construction, ordered equipment, and hired staff," said Lengel. "It was a turn-key operation, built with the intentions of being the best state-of-the-art laboratory the AHSA could build."


The laboratory space is leased from Cornell, and is protected by several overlapping security systems.


Types Of Testing


Enzyme-linked immunoassay (ELISA) is a highly sensitive, color-based test for screening samples. The laboratory performs 80-90 different ELISA tests on each sample. "We have every test that is available from our manufacturer," said Lengel, "by far, the largest amount of screening performed by any equine drug testing laboratory." Samples are sent through a computerized optical scanner, where suspicious samples can be detected.


Another screening procedure that can be used is thin layer chromatography, which performs a broad spectrum screen for drugs. Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectometry is the gold standard for confirming the identity of drugs in a sample. This test records a fingerprint of the molecular structure of a drug or its metabolite (components of the drug once it is broken down), and provides irrefutable evidence of drug use.


The USA Equestrian lab recently obtained an even more sophisticated and sensitive tool, the HPLC/MS, which is also used for confirmation of a positive test.


Lengel states emphatically that the laboratory never reports a false positive.




If a sample comes back positive from the laboratory, Lengel receives a letter that refers him to a unique number on file at the Drugs and Medications office of USA Equestrian in Columbus, Ohio. This number and the date and name of the show or event are the only identifying details paired with a sample at the laboratory. Lengel matches the number to testing information on file. Upon identifying the positive horse, he notifies USA Equestrian's main office in Lexington, Ky., which then contacts the responsible individual.


About half of the positive samples are due to medications given in accordance with the rules of the USA Equestrian. This means the individual responsible for the horse used the drug for a therapeutic purpose, filled out a medical form prior to showing the horse (i.e., local anesthetic for stitching on a wound), and waited the required 24 hours before competition, thereby complying with the rules. Traces of the drug might show in the sample. Only 0.5% of all samples are found to contain a forbidden substance.


Hearings for rule infringements are held at different locations across the country. More than 30 Hearing Committee members are invited to sit at the hearings. They never know the identity of the respondents in the cases before arriving at the hearings.


Typical penalties include suspensions, fines, and return of prize monies.


"Every penalty is different," explained Lengel, "based on facts of the case and prior penalties. Our goals are to protect the fairness of competition, safeguard the health of the equine athlete, and establish a level playing field."


The officials know that for the serious equestrian who loves the sport, six months away from competition and a $5,000 fine could be a hefty price to pay for just a few moments of competitive edge.


Questions about the Drugs & Medications Rule and Program can be directed to Lengel at 800/MED-AHSA. For more about USA Equestrian, visit

About the Author

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief, received a B.A. in Journalism and Equestrian Studies from Averett College in Danville, Virginia. A Pony Club and 4-H graduate, her background is in eventing, and she is schooling her recently retired Thoroughbred racehorse, Happy, toward a career in that discipline. She also enjoys traveling, photography, cycling, and cooking in her free time.

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